On May 19 Iran will hold its twelfth presidential election since the establishment of the Islamic Republic in 1979. All eyes are on the candidates, especially on the Rouhani-Raisi competition. However, there is another election process that is not under scrutiny and that will probably shape the future of the Islamic Republic. The Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will turn 78 this year and, although succession to the Supreme Leader is a taboo topic in Iran since Khomeini’s heir apparent Ali Montazeri fell from grace, sooner or later the necessity will arise. Thus, one of the reasons this election matters is because it could give us a hint about the political trend in the post-Khamenei period.
Don’t get me wrong: elections matter in Iran. The president has a certain amount of power and can shape day-to-day politics (we have seen it in the radically different presidencies of Rafsanjani, Khatami, Ahmadinejad, Rouhani). Yet at the end of the day, it is the Supreme Leader who wields the power. As Sadjadpour said, “Neither a dictator nor a democrat — but with traits of both — Khamenei is the single most powerful individual in a highly factionalized, autocratic regime”.
The position was engineered in the early days of the revolution, following through on the Khomeinist theory of velayat-e faqih, developed by the ayatollah in the 1970s. According to this theory, in the absence of the 12th Imam, the most learned of the Shia jurists, the faqih, has the right and the duty to exercise guardianship over the community. This concept was incorporated into the 1979 Iranian constitution, creating the office of the Supreme Leader: article 5 stated that “During the occultation of the Wali al-'Asr, [t]he governance and leadership of the nation devolve upon the just and pious faqih who is acquainted with the circumstances of his age; courageous, resourceful, and possessed of administrative ability."
Khomeini himself exercised that role till his death in 1989 but problems of succession soon arose. As Arjomand said, the Islamic Republic was a suit tailored only for Khomeini. When the ayatollah died, there was no clear successor. Ayatollah Montazeri, the designated successor, was dismissed in the mid-1980s. In the absence of a learned faqih willing to wear the mantle of the prophet and accept the Khomeinist interpretation of Shia doctrine, a compromise was found by revising the qualifications for the position, which were diminished in a way that the Leader did not need to be a leading marja (a source of imitation for Shiite believers). Article 107 stated that he only needed to be well informed about fiqh, socio-political problems, have popular legitimacy, and be “just and pious”.
The revision of the constitution paved the way for Khamenei (at that time President of the Republic) to be elevated to the position of Supreme Leader. Starting out as a relatively weak Leader, Khamenei slowly built his base of support by cultivating a network of “clerical commissars” and positioning them at every level of the state, including the clerical establishment, the media and the military.
Today the Supreme Leader has unparalleled power. He appoints the heads of the judiciary, the state-owned media, the regular armed forces, and the Revolutionary Guards. He exercises his influence over the powerful Guardian Council, which is in charge of vetting parliamentary decisions and electoral candidates. He also retains influence over the Iranian economy, which is largely state-controlled, by maintaining his jurisdiction over the charitable foundations (bonyads) worth billions of dollars in assets.
The enormous amount of power accumulated by Khamenei in the office of the Supreme Leader has made the succession extremely important.
The succession process laid out by the 1989 Constitution is as follows: when the Leader resigns, dies, or is dismissed, the Assembly of Experts is charged with appointing a new Leader. Until then, an interim panel consisting of the president, the head of the Judiciary, and a member of the Guardian Council temporarily performs the duties of the Leader.
However, as in the previous succession, it could be that the formal process will be bypassed. In 1989 it was influential political elites who pressured the Assembly of Experts to appoint Khamenei. Thus, the balance of power which will emerge after Friday’s elections could give us a hint of how the succession process will develop. At the moment, four possible scenarios can be drawn.
The first is the “plain succession”, led by Khamenei himself who could possibly have already chosen his successor, obviously keeping him secret as an heir unapparent. Some of the most prominent names that have been cited include Khamenei’s second son and favored candidate Mojtaba, ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi (former judiciary chief and Guardian Council member, currently on the Expediency Council and Assembly of Experts), but also Muhammad Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, a radical cleric seen in the past as Ahmadinejad’s mentor. And then there is Ebrahim Raisi, the presidential candidate who will contend the presidency with Rouhani. When he threw in his name for registration as a candidate two months ago, many were surprised. Actually, not so many people knew him before his appointment in March 2016 as custodian of Astan Qods Razavi, the powerful bonyad managing the Imam Reza shrine in Mashhad. A longtime loyal servant of the Leader, Raisi is close to Khamenei’s inner circle. Should he succeed in being elected, the position of president could represent a way to demonstrate his administrative credentials and pave the way for his election as the Supreme Leader, as it did for Khamenei in 1989, who transitioned from president to Supreme Leader. In this case, however, serious doubts emerge about the perceived legitimacy of his upgrading. It is not a mystery to the Iranian population that he played a leading role in the execution of political prisoners in the 1980s. For a position – that of the Supreme Leader – which, especially after 2009, is suffering a severe crisis of legitimacy – this might not end well. On the contrary, should Raisi not succeed in being elected, it would be even more difficult for him to be accepted as Supreme Leader.
A second scenario is collegial leadership, a compromise solution that could be chosen should no individual candidate be able to build consensus behind his appointment. However, such a solution would likely bring about further division that would eventually lead to a weakening of the Leader’s position.
A third scenario, which gained legitimacy in the years of Ahmadinejad, when the Revolutionary Guards expanded their hold on republican institutions, is a military-led transition. Since the IRGC is in charge of safeguarding stability and protecting the revolution, a delicate moment such as that of the succession could fall into their hands. In this case, the office of the Supreme Leader could be preserved, although in a merely ceremonial way.
A fourth, and more unlikely, scenario is the transformation of the office of Supreme Leader either by having the people directly elect him, or by placing checks on his powers, thereby abolishing the concept of the absolute mandate of the jurist (velayat-e motlaqeh-ye faqih). At the moment this scenario is the least likely, since in all probability the governing clerics would not act in such a way as to undermine the basis of the regime’s legitimacy itself.
Elections in Iran always bring about big surprises. On this occasion, they could tell us about where the balance of power is shifting, and give us a hint about the future of the Islamic Republic.